I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.
Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.
But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods. But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around. I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.
Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.
A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.
Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips. I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination. I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.
It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.
Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches. Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.
So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.
I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.
I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end. Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.
Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described: someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.
I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)
I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field. As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.
I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.
Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.
Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away. The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.
(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.
(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.
A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive. Very beautiful snakes.
And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.
By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more. I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker. I’ll never know.
I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds. I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.
photos follow . . .
As most readers know, I have been very focused on feeding sign, and specifically on bark scaling, for several years and believe I have identified a diagnostic type of work that is beyond the physical capacity of any other woodpecker species. I have been far less focused on excavation because I was convinced that there was no way to distinguish between Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker digging.
In fact, Frank Wiley and I have had a long-running joke about Plate 11 in Tanner and have always wondered why he included it. Based on some feeding sign we’ve found recently, another look at some sign found in May, and a look at online imagery of both Campephilus and Pileated excavations, I suspect that certain types of excavation are suggestive if not diagnostic.
Tanner wrote, “When Ivory-bills dig, they chisel into the sap and heartwood for borers like other woodpeckers, digging slightly conical holes that are usually circular in cross section (Plate 11).”
When I returned from Louisiana in November, I was struck by certain similarities between this excavation:
which I discussed in the most recent trip report, and Plate 11, especially the hole at the upper right and the third hole from the bottom in the plate. I was also impressed by the bill marks at the edges of these holes and by their depth. I then started looking at images from Bill Benish’s Flickr Campephilus group photos and was struck by the similarities, for example:
I then went back to a photograph I took in May of some excavation that struck me as being unusual at the time, although I couldn’t have specifically explained why.
The appearance of some of the holes is strikingly similar to the Pale-billed Woodpecker excavation shown here.
The work in the upper part of the image that’s partially cut off looks more consistent with typical Pileated excavation.
While I’ve not examined digging with nearly the attentiveness that I’ve devoted to scaling, These workings do not look like typical PIWO excavation, examples of which can be found:
Magellanic Woodpeckers, which are more PIWO-like behaviorally and anatomically, appear to excavate in a way that’s more similar in appearance to typical PIWO work, but even Magellanic excavation often seems to have a more jagged and more rounded look than does PIWO.
I wonder if the apparent differences might have to do with preferred food sources – termites and ants for pileateds and beetle larvae for ivorybill. General deep digging is an effective feeding strategy for the former; while more targeted excavation would be more efficient for the latter. Note that the PIWO work in the first image above seems to be targeted (and was likely focused on larvae) but has a much sloppier appearance.
Today, I found another tree with this type of work, not far from the area that we’ve just started to explore and think is very promising. Below are two views of the work. One potentially significant element is that the larger holes appear asymmetrical (Tanner notwithstanding) and more skewed in orientation than typical Pileated Woodpecker foraging trenches, which would be consistent with their being dug with more lateral blows.
While I’m not prepared to suggest that there’s a diagnostic when it comes to this type of feeding sign (and my comments about the excavation from last May are considerably more speculative) , I am starting to think it may be and that there may be a gestalt that is at least suggestive of ivorybill to the experienced and careful observer.
Edited to add: to reiterate, this is an evolving hypothesis, subject to revision or abandonment. I will need to start looking closely at work outside of suspected ivorybill areas and at the work of other Dryocopus woodpeckers.
In a 1936 letter to James Tanner before Tanner began his survey of possible ivorybill habitat in the southeast, Herbert Stoddard wrote, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.” Stoddard continued, “. . . if I had the rest of my life for the purpose, I doubt I could cover adequately half the ground I now think worth investigating. When I say adequately I have in mind five days I spent looking especially for these birds with men such as Bob Allen and Alex Sprunt on an area of some ten thousand acres known to be frequented by several pairs of these birds without seeing one. Of course this was due to the element of luck, as others have gone in the same area for a few hours and seen one or two. But it indicates the time one would have to spend in these great river valleys to really be reasonably sure that the birds were absent or even extremely rare therein.” Tanner was one person, and he clearly didn’t have the time to devote to the thorough survey Stoddard suggested, but the later record suggests that he failed even more deeply to take Stoddard’s words to heart. Stoddard’s perspective leaves room for the possibility that Tanner grossly underestimated the ivorybill population in his monograph, something that might lead to very different projections about the likelihood of survival today. It also sheds additional light on the difficulties in searching for ivorybills and on what appear to be some significant blindspots in Tanner’s thinking about the species.
I recently wrote a Facebook post in which I stated Tanner had a “hard time” finding Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. A very prominent American birder and ivorybill skeptic promptly shot back asking for citations, which I provided; I wouldn’t play along with the snarky response, but the exchange gave me the impetus to write this post. To most birders, Tanner is a kind of heroic figure, a pioneer ornithologist, and the author of the only in-depth, definitive study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that, in Tanner’s telling (and even more so in the retelling), was a super specialist that depended on virgin forest for its survival. Tanner is also rightly seen as having played a central role in the development of modern environmentalism, fighting to save the Singer Tract itself and later helping to create Congaree National Park, one of the few remaining substantial old growth stands in the south.
Those who are more deeply steeped in ivorybill lore are likely to have a somewhat different perspective, even as they admire Tanner’s good qualities. In later years, Tanner became increasingly dogmatic about ivorybill habitat requirements and was usually harshly dismissive of reports from others – including John Dennis in Texas and Agey and Heinzmann in Florida. (This dismissiveness began to take hold in the early 1950s.) By no later than 1985, and probably much earlier than that, Tanner had become convinced the ivorybill was extinct, a conviction that he usually leavened with the statement that he’d love to be proven wrong. Ivorybill aficionados may also raise questions about the 1930s surveys he conducted in the southeast, and the rapidity with which he dismissed almost every place he visited as being unsuitable, sometimes based on a visit lasting a day or two. Most of these visits were made outside of breeding season, at times when finding ivorybills was considerably more difficult.
Tanner may have been right to dismiss many of these areas, but the possibility that he might have missed several populations cannot be ruled out, especially in light of the letter from Stoddard, an established ornithologist with first-hand knowledge of the species. At minimum, Stoddard’s letter put Tanner on notice that ivorybills could be very difficult to find.
Were preconceived beliefs driving Tanner from 1937-1939; was he being cavalier in his dismissals; or was he simply doing his best to accomplish what Stoddard said would take a lifetime in a few weeks spread over three years? It was probably all of the above, but whatever the reason, his mindset became an even bigger problem as time went on, leading him to foment the false impression that ivorybills should be easy to find, a notion that informed the views of my interlocutor on Facebook and of many those who believe the species is extinct.
The fact is that when Tanner was in the Singer Tract, the only birds he could find on a regular basis were the “John’s Bayou Family”, the group first studied in 1935. Their nesting and roosting grounds were approximately 1 mile from Sharkey Road. From 1935-1939, the birds nested in the same general vicinity. Three of the four nests were in very close proximity to one another, and the greatest distance between any two nest sites was 3/4 of a mile. Despite this clustering, it took Tanner five days to find a nest in 1939, when he didn’t have J.J. Kuhn (who had been forced out of his job as Singer Tract Warden) to assist him.
While Tanner paid respect to and credited Kuhn, the passage of time has made it increasingly clear that he downplayed the degree to which he depended on Kuhn to find ivorybills. Kuhn had been observing the birds for several years before the 1935 expedition (which also took several days to find ivorybills), and it’s reasonable to infer that the John’s Bayou family was already somewhat habituated to human presence by 1935. Certainly after ’35, they were accustomed to human activity in the immediate vicinity of their nest sites.
The only other ivorybill Tanner saw was one he named Mack’s Bayou Pete, presumably a bird hatched in 1935 from a nest that Kuhn found. As with the John’s Bayou pair, this bird was found within a home range that had been roughly delineated in 1935; Tanner believed he could recognize Pete’s voice, but the bird was far more frequently heard than seen.
Edited to Add: I’ve been reminded that the 1935 Mack’s Bayou Nest failed, and that Pete more likely fledged in 1937. The fate of the adult Mack’s Bayou pair is unknown.
Tanner continued to correspond with informants in the Singer Tract until 1948 or ’49 and was advised that one or two birds remained until that time. As Tanner’s temporal distance from his experiences in the Singer Tract grew, so did the distortions in his memory. These distortions are perhaps most dramatically illustrated in an article he wrote entitled “A Forest Alive”, which was published posthumously in Birdwatch (2001), a British magazine. Prominent ivorybill skeptic Martin Collinson mentioned the article and quoted it at some length in a 2007 blog post:
Collinson concluded his post with this observation: “As others have pointed out… you can only rationalise the failure of the current searches if you don’t include the words ‘active and noisy’, ‘called frequently’ and ‘easier to see and follow’, in your dataset.”
Of course, Tanner’s observations applied only to the John’s Bayou birds studied in close proximity to a nest. More importantly, Tanner’s recollection was incomplete and inaccurate, and he corrected it in another, humbler, posthumous piece that appeared in Birdwatcher’s Digest (2000) under the title “A Postscript on Ivorybills”. Tanner began by observing that, “Like everyone else’s memory, mine forgets the annoying and unpleasant things and remembers the pleasing; the mosquitoes go but the birdsong remains. Mine is also likely to forget the important and regular events and retain the trivial and unusual.”
The article makes it clear that finding even the John’s Bayou birds (which had a known territory and roosting ground) could be difficult and was even harder outside of nesting season. Tanner concluded with this reminiscence: “Hunting in other areas of the Singer Tract for ivorybills was even more difficult and discouraging. My journal is full of such comments as ‘saw old sign, lots of impenetrable vines, and no ivorybills.’ The only other ivorybill we ever found outside of the one nesting pair and their offspring was a single male that we dubbed Mack’s Bayou Pete because of the area he usually inhabited. He was hard to find and once found was soon lost . . . ” And to reiterate, Mack’s Bayou Pete’s home range was at least something of a known quantity.
By 1985, Tanner was advising the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the ivorybill as extinct. He gave the following reasons, to paraphrase:
1) The reports have been unconfirmed and they often describe behavior that is characteristic of Pileateds (flushing from stumps and logs).
Tanner described this as being rare in ivorybills, which may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Allen and Kellogg observed a female feeding on the ground. Moreover, not all reports involved this behavior.
2) There’s so much recreational use of areas where ivorybills used to be present that people should be hearing and seeing them, and there are no extensive areas of former IBWO habitat that are remote and unvisited.
What’s omitted from this analysis is the fact that the beginning of nesting season and the end of deer season are roughly congruent, at least in Louisiana. This means that there’s actually very little human traffic in many prime nesting areas during the times when birds are most active and vocal. And of course, the John’s Bayou area was not particularly remote, although other parts of the Singer Tract were considerably more difficult to reach.
3) Ivorybills are fairly conspicuous birds that, “if present . . . are not hard to find. Furthermore, the feeding sign they made (scaling bark from extensive areas of not long dead limbs and trees) could be easily recognized as a clue to their presence.”
With regard to the feeding sign, I have to wonder what Tanner would say about the sign we’ve found that appears to match this description perfectly. With regard to being easy to find, Tanner’s field notes and his reminiscence in “A Postscript . . .” make it clear that ivorybills were extremely difficult to find, except in extraordinary circumstances – in close proximity to a nest and perhaps with a good deal of habituation to human presence.
Tanner’s story is amazing. His monograph is seminal though not gospel. The in-depth examination of his work in Stephen Lyn Bales’s Ghost Birds is essential reading. Many of his later pronouncements, however, have done a disservice and continue to sow confusion more than two decades after his death.
I’m indebted to Fredrik Bryntesson for sharing Herbert Stoddard’s 1936 letter and reminding me of Tanner’s missive to USFWS. This piece is informed by years of discussion with Frank Wiley. He also made a number of constructive suggestions about the specific content. Direct descendants excepted, Frank was undoubtedly J.J. Kuhn’s greatest admirer.